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Afternoon Tea Etiquette

L Sarhan is a former server and worked in restaurants for over 15 years.

Learning proper etiquette is an important part of tea time.

Learning proper etiquette is an important part of tea time.

Tea has brought people together for centuries. Almost every culture has its own particular etiquette, manners, and customs when comes to relaxing with a cup of tea. However, there are some basic manners and etiquette to follow when it comes to tea time whether you are hosting or attending as a guest.

Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea is a tradition that dates back to the 1840s. It was first started by Anna Russell, the seventh Dutchess of Bedford, who was the lifelong friend of Queen Victoria. Anna, would feel hungry in the late afternoon and was looking for a way to curb her appetite during the long wait between lunch and the late evening meal. She first started by having a light snack with her tea privately in her boudoir, which is a private sitting area or bedroom. She later popularized it among the English aristocrats by sending out formal invitations to friends and affluential women to join her for afternoon tea at Woburn Abbey.

The tradition began to take root with people of all social classes. In fact, it wasn't uncommon during this time that some would eat breakfast in the morning and not eat again until supper was served around 8:00 pm.

In England, afternoon tea is typically served at either 4:00 pm or 5:00 pm. Guests typically did not stay after 7:00 pm. However, in America, afternoon tea is appropriately served between 3:00 pm and 5:00 pm. Some have been known to serve afternoon tea as early as 2:00 pm.

Afternoon tea has three distinct courses. First guests start off with dainty finger sandwiches, such as cucumber sandwiches or salmon salad sandwiches. Next to be eaten are the scones. There are a variety of scone recipes but the most popular scones are fruit scones. The final dish is typically some sort of cake or pastry.

Light Tea

A light tea is very similar to afternoon tea. It is served at the same time. However, instead of three courses that are typical of afternoon tea, only a light snack is served. Typically, this involves only small finger sandwiches and does not include all of the sweet treats. However, some light teas offer scones or petite fours in place of finger sandwiches. In essence, instead of a three or four-course tea meal, it just includes one.


Royal Tea

Royal tea is more formal afternoon tea. It is also great when the formal tea party is celebrating a particular occasion. The difference between afternoon tea and royal tea is that royal tea serves champagne or sherry in addition to the tea. If you prefer not to serve alcohol, sparkling apple cider served in champagne flutes is an acceptable substitute. The other difference is that instead of three courses, royal tea has four courses of finger sandwiches, scones, pastries, and other dessert items, such as petite fours.

High Tea

High tea is a phrase that is often misused when a person is trying to sound or appear more elegant. It actually isn't considered to be a formal or even an informal tea gathering at all. To use the term just makes one sound silly and will clearly show that the person knows nothing of tea time etiquette or history. Even many high-class hotels use this term when planning formal tea events, even though it is incorrect usage.

High tea was actually a time when the working class who usually worked hard labor jobs, such as factories, mines, and fields, would come home from a long day very hungry. They would sit down to a buffet-style supper meal serving meats, side dishes, and bread. They just happen to wash it all down with a glass of tea.

Basic Wording for Informal or Formal Tea Party

[Hostess' name]
requests the pleasure of your company
for afternoon tea,

[Day, date of month year]
at four o'clock p.m.

[Event location and address]

Dress code: [Casual, dressy casual, formal, or semi-formal]

R.S.V.P. [Phone number of the hostess.]

Guest of Honor

If your afternoon tea is to honor a guest, such as a bride or a mother-to-be, all guests should stay until the guest of honor has left. To leave before the guest of honor is considered rude unless the guest of honor lives at the location the afternoon tea is held.

If there is an emergency or reasonably more pressing matter, it is general courtesies to thank both the host/hostess and the guest of honor before departing. It is also worth noting that it is etiquette to send a written thank you card to the host/hostess within two days after the event.

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So you have decided to invite some friends over to have a tea party? There are certain etiquette rules to consider when it comes to inviting people over for tea. Typically, you should not telephone your invitation. In today's digital age, some people send out invitations via email or creating event pages on social media websites. While this may be okay for informal tea gathering among a small group of friends, it is not always proper etiquette especially when it comes to formal tea parties. In such a case, you should mail out or hand-deliver the formal invitation. However, it perfectly acceptable if a business, such as a hotel or a restaurant, wishes to promote a tea party that is open to the public on social media via event listings or through their website.

The wording of an afternoon tea party invitation will vary depending upon the occasion and they grade of formality to the party. It has become increasingly popular to have afternoon tea or royal tea for bridal showers, baby showers, birthday parties, and even just to network with other businesswomen. Other afternoon tea party occasions that may be formal or informal include book clubs, church groups, or other focus groups.

The standard wording of an afternoon tea invitation should include the "who, what, when, and where" of the event. Basically it should include the hostess' name, date, time, and address of the location the afternoon tea will be held. Including the dress, code requirement is optional but helpful for letting the guest be better prepared when deciding what to wear to your afternoon tea. You may also include the reason for the occasion, such as "Please join us for afternoon tea honoring the engagement of [insert bride's name]..." The R.S.V.P. should be toward the bottom with the hostess' telephone number and in some cases an email if the hostess' is accepting R.S.V.P. via email as well. It is also acceptable to include a return R.S.V.P postcard, but this is optional. If you include an R.S.V.P return postcard, consider already having a stamp affixed to it to make it easier on the guest. Again, this is optional.

It is best to handwrite the invitations, using your neatest handwriting. However, try to make it look elegant. Consider using a calligraphy script. However, in the modern era, it is perfectly acceptable to use a computer program that can also add elegant or whimsical graphics, depending on whether the tea is formal or informal. If you are planning the afternoon tea way in advance, you could also order afternoon tea invitations from a company that specializes in invitations.

Invitations should be mailed out or hand-delivered at least two weeks in advance. This allows the guest plenty of time to possibly adjust their schedule in order to attend. It also allows the guest plenty of time to R.S.V.P. as well.


Etiquette and Manners

You have accepted the invitation and arrive promptly on time. So now how should you behave in afternoon tea? Well, there are several etiquette rules that must be considered and followed to ensure proper, civilized behavior.

The Tea

Proper afternoon tea typically includes a teapot, which is steeping loose tea. You should have a strainer that fits atop the teacup to strain the tea as it is poured and a matching drip pan as pictured to the right. You should also have a teapot with hot water so that your guest may dilute the steeped tea or so you can steep more tea. In some casual, informal occasions, you may use teabags.

When it is time to pour the tea, you may ask the guest if he or she would like strong or weak tea. For strong tea, pour the tea no more than 3/4 full. Weak tea is typically poured only 1/2 full. This allows for extra hot water to be poured in the cup. Never fill the teacup to the brim. It is ill-mannered to spill any of the tea on the saucer, table, and yourself.

When it comes to drinking tea, there are are some things to remember:

  • Pinkies up are actually considered ill-mannered.
  • Do not blow on the tea to cool it off.
  • Take small, dainty sips; do not gulp and never make a sound when taking a sip.
  • The teacup goes in the right hand.
  • Never cradle the cup with your hands. Use the handle only; that is what it is for.
  • If standing, the saucer is held in the left hand.
  • In some social circles, especially Asian cultures, you place your hand on the bottom of the teacup so the bottom is not seen.
  • Never make noise when you are stirring with your spoon.
  • Never tap the spoon against your teacup.
  • Gently place the spoon to the right side of the saucer without making a noise.
  • Never place the spoon on the table.
  • Never place the spoon in your mouth.

Food Etiquette



Never use lemons and milk together. The lemon will sour the milk.

Lemon or Milk?

For the most part, choosing lemon or milk with your tea is of a personal choice. Milk goes wonderfully with a cup of Chia tea or Earl Grey. However, some people prefer lemon with their Earl Grey so, again, it is a matter of personal choice.

Please note that milk is used with tea, not cream. The cream is used when coffee is served. In fact, you may serve coffee at an afternoon tea if an individual is not fond of tea. So it is good to have coffee and cream on hand, just in case.

Also note that if you are passing the milk or cream, turn the handle so that the next person can grab the milk or cream by the handle.

When it comes to lemons, slice the lemons whole. Do not use wedges. You may also choose to have some small tangerine slices available as well. Oranges are typically too large to be placed in a teacup but tangerines are a great substitute. The reason why this is important is that if you prefer lemon, or orange, in your tea, you allow the slice to sink to the bottom of your teacup. Never squeeze the slice or discard it to the side. Always use a lemon fork and never use your hands to pick up a lemon slice.

Sugar packets vs. Sugar Cubes

Choosing whether to use sugar packets or sugar cubes depends on the availability and knowing your guests. Sugar cubes are preferred for formal tea, whereas sugar packets may be used with informal tea gatherings. However, either is acceptable in either formality setting as long as you know the proper etiquette to use with both forms of sugar.

One lump or two? If you are serving the tea to your guest, you may politely ask how many sugars they would prefer. After a response, you may use the sugar cube tongs to add directly to their tea. You may also use loose sugar with a sugar spoon. Again, it depends on what is available in your area. If it is a setting where the guests are serving themselves, have available a small plate or tray with neatly stacked cubes and sugar tongs. For sugar packets, place several packets in a neat serving tray or caddy.

Some people prefer honey instead of sugar. Consider having pure honey present for those who prefer a healthy substitute. A great way to display this is by using a rectangle serving tray with sugar cubes in the center and small jars of honey at both ends.

When it comes to sugar packets, there are some things to remember when opening and discarding the sugar packet itself. Never shake the sugar packet. Gently tear open the corner over your tea and pour in. Then set the sugar packet neatly on the side of the saucer. Never crumple or wad the sugar packet nor do you set it on the table.


Serving the Food

When it comes to serving food, there are some things you will need to display the food as well as allowing your guests to eat the food. Invest in a 3-tier serving tray. Finger sandwiches are displayed, with the crusts of the bread neatly cut off, on the bottom tier. Scones are displayed on the second tier, followed by pastries and desserts on the upper tier. Always have tongs available and preferably one for each tier. Other items you will need are small dessert plates, appetizer or bread plates, a butter knife, and a knife for the jam.

Although foods served at afternoon tea are supposed to be finger foods, if you are serving desserts that require eating utensils, make sure you have the proper dessert forks as well as knives and spoons.

Eating the Food

Always place the tea napkin in your lap after sitting down or after the afternoon tea as started. The tea napkin is smaller than a dinner napkin and is opened completely to lay flat on your lap compared to the folding of a dinner napkin along your lap.

When served a scone, there are some things to remember. First, you will cut the scone in half. Starting with the bottom half, apply a small amount of jam followed by a small amount of clotted cream or whipped cream. Only apply the jam and clotted cream to one side at a time. Once you have finished with one, you may then apply the jam and clotted cream to the other side.

When it comes to when to begin eating and drinking, it varies depending on the situation. A general rule, out of politeness, is to at the very least wait until the other guests are served. In some cases, such as entertaining royalty, one is not supposed to eat or drink until a member of the royal family, such as the Queen of England, eats or drinks first. Even still, it is also proper etiquette to follow the eating and drinking pace of the Queen. This can be a good general rule applied to anyone who is hosting or is the guest of honor.

Afternoon tea can be a delightful social gathering when one knows how to behave properly. It can also be a great opportunity for casual conversations with friends, as well as networking within the business community. Although you hear more about women having afternoon tea, it is also popular among men, especially when it comes to business. By applying these simple etiquette rules, it will make any afternoon tea a success.

Questions & Answers

Question: If the hostess asks me to pour the tea, what should my reaction be?

Answer: According to, "It is an honor to be asked to pour tea. The pourer is considered the guardian of the teapot, which implies sterling social graces and profound trust."

© 2014 Linda Sarhan

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